Denis Desert on the baptismal rite and interpretations of the nature of good and evil

John Steinbeck begins one of his novels with, ‘Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light …’. He goes on to describe the residents: ‘Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole, he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men.’ And he would have meant the same thing.’

Enduring theme

The author in Cannery Row explores the enigma of our human nature with all its propensities for good and evil. This is a theme that has teased the minds of thinking people from antiquity. Humanity, I would suggest, is endowed with a deep intuition that it is basic to our nature that we live in a positive and creative manner on the face of the earth but that somehow a negative element gets in the way. This negative aspect, or sin, has been typified in various ways. The myth of Adam and Eve with the woman consuming the forbidden fruit is one example.

So it is that different cultures at different epochs have produced various images to help humanity explore the nature of evil. In our own Christian tradition the image of the devil looms large and medieval congregations were often confronted with horrific doom paintings over the chancel arch. The Hebrews considered freedom of choice to be paramount. It is significant that the rabbinic tradition, in interpreting the Genesis story of the fall of man, gives the view that ‘man does not sin because of Adam, but man sins as Adam’. In other words Adam is viewed as a type of sinner and not as the one who infected the race with the virus of sin.

The rabbinic tradition underlines the importance of God’s gift of freedom of will to humanity. In Deuteronomy 30.19 God, speaking through Moses, states, ‘I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse: therefore choose life’.

Freedom of will

This line of understanding was reflected in rabbinism with the doctrine of the yetzer ha ra and the yetzer ha tov; the good and the evil imaginations. Again it is seen that freedom of choice is at the heart of being truly human. In Jewish understanding the integrity and the freedom of the human response is vital. Adam cannot be blamed for our sinful acts, or for that matter the devil, but the buck, as it has been said, stops with us; we are totally responsible for our own actions. We cannot blame some malign external force for our sinful actions.

To my mind the rabbinic understanding has some bearing on the present debate on the baptismal rite. I suggest that mythological concepts need to be replaced with liturgical expressions that cohere with our ‘postmodern’ society. It would appear that the clergy of Liverpool in 2011 were concerned with this issue. Any revision of the baptismal rite does not necessarily mean dumbing down and using banal language but using clear theological terms expressed in words that flow and are memorable. And as for the ‘slant’ any baptism rite, I suggest that it needs to be focused in a strongly positive direction affirming the dignity and wonder of our humanity.

Yes, of course, as Steinbeck reflects of the residents of Cannery Row, we are prone to negative attitudes and acts. This tendency has to be given proper weight in the rite. But from my long pastoral experience and reflecting on the human condition, I hold it is our potential to become saints, angels, martyrs and holy people that requires to be emphasized rather than the negative aspect of our behaviour. To put it into our Lord’s words, ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’. In an age in which, through the media, we are made conscious of the sinfulness of humanity, we need, especially in the baptismal rite, to emphasize the other side of the coin. That is why the devil needs to be sent packing!